Driving along Highway 14/16 between Cody, Wyoming and the Bighorn Mountains for most people can be an excruciating experience. Mile after mile yields very little difference in landscape interest as the full stretch offers only a bland, sparsely populated high desert environment with only a small badlands hill sporadically placed across vast distances. As a result, many people would wonder why I would even bring up protecting an area so void of interest. Hidden beyond the main highway, however, is a completely different landscape obscured by its deceptively barren foreground.
The drive along the highway brings you parallel to the McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As mentioned, from the highway, it looks like nothing more than a wasteland waiting to be rescued from the oil and gas industry. However veer off to the north a few miles and you’ll be escorted to a landscape that explodes with natural beauty as you crest a ridge, surprising and treating everyone to a view that rivals anything in Badlands National Park.
Upon seeing majestic hills and mountains painted in pastel pigments towering over vast stretches of the eroded sediment, one cannot help but be captivated by the entire area. Driving back through the formerly seeming barren wasteland all of a sudden has a much more subtle and powerful beauty about it as hints of what lies over the ridge take on a new meaning and life of their own. It does not take long for the next logical question to pop into anyone’s mind: "Where is all the wildlife?"
Granted, the area being a desert, wildlife would not exactly be thriving over every subtle slope. Rather, being a high, cold desert, it would be a quieter ecosystem of wildlife. And yet, the area still feels like there is a missing component, emitting an eerie sense of a wildlife ghost town. Noticeably absent are gophers and/or prairie dogs, a keystone prey species that would attract predators in many different forms. With the healthy presence of a ground rodent, coyotes, hawks, falcons, owls, and even the endangered black-footed ferret would be a welcome addition in maintaining the population, among others. Abandoned ground rodent homes would become homes for other animals, while the ground itself would become healthier. With healthier soil, more enriched grass would grow to help feed deer, pronghorn, and even the wild horses currently found in the area. It’s an ecosystem just waiting to spring to life!
Badlands were created over the course of dozens of millions of years, the latest being roughly 75 million years ago when the area was under a shallow sea. As the sea drained, different types of sediment were deposited on top of each other, eventually hardening as they became buried. The elements of erosion in more recent times began to expose these layers leaving bright striations through large hills and mountains. They are a geologic treasure that have been at work for a time much longer than we can even fathom.
Yet now, they’re currently in danger for the satisfaction of a short-term, dollarable fulfillment whose needs probably will not even survive the century. Though currently protected under the Bureau of Land Management, the area itself is in danger from multiple factors that could very quickly degrade the nature of the area, or possibly even destroy it forever.
The most immediate threat is the oil and gas industry hard at work only miles away from the area. Should oil be found in any BLM area nearby, it would open the floodgates to raping a yet-to-be-realized treasure of the American West. The ground would never be the same and the wild inhabitants of that area would potentially never again be able to recolonize their former home, all for the sake of short-term interests. It’s a disheartening realization when one considers just how many lands that were rich with undiscovered treasures that we have already lost to an industry that has no concern for our own planet’s well-being. It’s truly a disaster when the American public loses a treasure that they did not even know they had. This is an area that I would feel weakened with loss should the oil and gas industry determine the fate of this land.
Another danger is the occasional cattle grazing on the area. While I certainly prefer my beef free-ranging, I feel as though cattle simply should not be in certain areas, particularly those with such a powerful presence with so little water. The effect of cattle on American desert soil is borderline disastrous as their hooves simply are not suited for the land here. They compact the dirt, making it difficult for new grasses and vegetation to penetrate through for normal growth. For this reason, bison are much more suited to be grazing on BLM lands such as this over cattle. Bison are our native cattle species, so why we are still supporting a less healthy option for both us and our native ecosystem still eludes me.
Finally, badlands are known for being fragile lands already subject to the ticking threat of erosion. The soft ground erodes much more easily than other areas, so rain showers, wind, ice, and other natural factors are already at work wearing down the hillsides and mountains of the ancient sediment. However, the BLM still permits ATV use on trails of the badlands, increasing the rate of their eventual erosion. Though I am not against ATV use, I simply feel that there are better places for such use to be conducted rather than on fragile land.
Studies have shown that national parks only enrich an area’s economy and livelihood. The town of Cody, Wyoming would see an unprecedented spike in its economy since it would be sandwiched in between two national parks, one of which is in the top five most visited parks of the country. This alone would cause Bighorn Basin National Park’s visitation to be extraordinary. More and more people every year are "escaping" to their national parks to rediscover something that is missing from their busy and demanding lives. More and more people are looking at maps to determine which protected area they would want to visit. Having three national parks within a short drive of each other would catapult the state of Wyoming’s economy into something sustainable not just for the immediate future, but for the everlasting future.
Eco-tourism has proven to be not a fad or even a niche market, but a growing trend among an ever-increasing traveling market. Cody is currently trying desperately to market to the hoards of people that pass through on their way to Yellowstone, many of them not giving a second glance to the area until they near the park’s border. However with a national park on the way, tourism, businesses, and the town itself would realize a modern-day gold mine in an extremely short time.
Throughout the summer, I have taken several groups out to the area in search of wild horses, and upon cresting the overlook to the badlands, they are all captivated by the sight and agree 100% that the area needs more protection than it has. From that moment, they begin to see that the area is being mismanaged, that the current policies governing the area will not last forever. The vast void of wildlife is a noticeable gap that creates the empty, barren feeling of the land in its current state. This is a landscape filled with both subtle and majestic beauty that must be seen to be understood, and with very few people seeing it, certain factors involved in its potential demise prefer it that way. Yet the resonance I’ve felt with this area compels me to do all I know how to do to ensure that it will indeed last for centuries at the very least and not simply cater to short-term benefits and needs.